Winners of the rental economy

May 25, 2011, 1:00 PM UTC

FORTUNE — There are still many factors discouraging even the most savvy homebuyers from purchasing a home, but a new class of renters is expected to bring a bright spot to the troubled U.S. real estate market. Prices for rental apartments are expected to rise nationally – by approximately 4.5% in 2011 and up to another 3% in 2012, according to

Why buy when you can rent?

During the housing boom between 2001 and 2005, prices for rentals fell by nearly 10% as easy credit offered by banks lured many newcomers to homeownership. Since the bust of the housing market, rents have more than made up those declines as more people now question the financial merits of homeownership or simply can’t get approved for a mortgage. From 2006 to 2009, rental prices on average increased by more than 15%, according to Moody’s Analytics economist Andreas Carbacho-Burgos. Nationwide, the average rent today is $1,360 a month.

Experts predict rents will continue rising.

Christina Aragon, director of strategy and consumer insight of, says this is being driven by demographic changes coupled with an improving economy and ongoing foreclosure problems hampering the market for single-family homes. Much of the demand for rentals will likely come from younger people who tend to rent rather than buy. The economic recession pushed many jobless twenty- and early thirty-somethings to crash with friends and parents, but Aragon expects that the improving job market will get them to find their own place. What’s more, the number of people aged 25 to 34 is forecast to grow 1.4% per year through 2013, helping drive demand further.

Paying more to the landlord might be bad news for renters, but it could signal that better days are ahead for the overall housing market. Here are a few winners of our burgeoning rental economy.

Builders and developers

Since the bust of the housing market, residential construction has dropped to record lows. But that is poised to change as builders and developers have already begun trying to cash in on higher demand for rental apartments.

Charles Brindell, chairman of the National Association of Home Builders’ Multifamily Leadership Board, says he expects apartment construction to pick up to at least 160,000 units this year, mostly in urban areas along the East Coast. This would be significantly higher, given that construction since 2009 has totaled less than 90,000 a year – the lowest in 50 years.

Brindell, also CEO of a Texas-based firm that invests and develops apartment communities, says he’s bullish because of the improving job prospects for younger workers. Brindell’s Mill Creek Residential Trust is planning to build 3,000 apartment units this year, mostly in the Northeast including the Boston area, Long Island, New York, and Virginia.

However, while a burst of activity in multi-family homes is certainly good news for the construction sector, it is by no means enough to return the homebuilders to their previous level of activity. The NAHB index that tracks builder confidence remains low at 16 — it was as high as 72 in 2005.

Real estate investment trusts (REITs)

It’s not that homeownership is dead, but people are certainly renting more and investors have picked up on the higher demand.

REITs, which invest in commercial properties from office buildings to rental apartments – have outperformed the S&P500 since the financial crisis. In 2010, investments in apartment complexes led gains in the overall REITs market with total returns at 47%. Returns for the overall REITs market was 28%, markedly higher than the S&P500 that saw returns of 15%.

Last month, real estate investment trusts Equity Residential (EQR), headed by real estate mogul Sam Zell, and AvalonBay Communities (AVB) — both among the nation’s biggest apartment owners — posted higher year-over-year revenue as the companies raised rents.

For Equity Residential, average rent rose 3.6% to $1,400 and occupancy rose to 95% from 94.6% the previous year on properties the company operated for a year or more. Revenue rose by 4%. And AvalonBay reported that revenues jumped 3.7% and average monthly rental rates ticked up slightly quarter over quarter from $1,873 to $1,879.

As of Monday, total returns for REITs were 8.73% (with about seven months to go), outperforming the Russell 2000, NASDAQ and S&P 500. Investments in apartment complexes continued contributing much of the gains.

Overall U.S. housing market

Given that many homeowners are still trying to clean up their messy finances, it might be hard to see how higher rents could benefit the overall U.S. housing market. In theory, at least, renting could become so expensive that it costs less to buy a house and make monthly mortgage payments.

In fact, that’s happening already, even if it hasn’t yet translated to a return to homeownership. In Moody Analytics’ latest list of rent ratios for 54 U.S. metropolitan areas, 29 cities fell into the  “better to buy” category. With many experts predicting that home prices have further to fall this year and with higher expectations for rentals, more cities could end up on the buy side of the buy-versus-rent calculator.

But much of that will likely depend on huge hurdles weighing on the housing market – namely, record foreclosure rates, high unemployment and tighter lending standards for new mortgages. Areas that continue to experience high foreclosure rates and widespread unemployment, such as Florida and Arizona, might find it more affordable to buy than rent. Yet renting will likely be king in more urban areas with more employment opportunities, such as New York and Seattle.